'Don't you feel guilty killing trees?' a child asked the estate foresters, and even the teachers wanted to know why mature trees could not be left to die naturally, rather than being harvested by felling.
I am glad to find that things are considerably better in and around the Oxfordshire town of Wantage, thanks largely to the remarkable efforts of Joanna Castle, a farmer who has launched a one-woman crusade to bridge the gap between town and country.
The Castle family has owned and run Home Farm at Charlton, on the outskirts of Wantage, for at least 170 years. They have 550 acres, mainly devoted to arable crops and beef cattle; but they also specialise in the production of wheat straw for thatching. Recently, to raise extra income, they set up an equestrian facility, which they let out to pony clubs and other bodies holding camps.
All these are commercial projects, and create a hectic schedule for a small workforce, mostly members of the family. Yet in the past few years Mrs Castle has also developed a system of school visits that has proved immensely successful. Last year alone she played host to more than 2,200 children in 99 groups.
She charges 50p for a half-day visit and pounds 1 for a full day, but these modest amounts barely cover her rates and insurance premiums. Her aim is not to make money from the educational activities. Rather, her ambition is 'to give children an understanding of what farming and the country are all about - the good and the bad, the nice and the nasty.'
Her study centre and archive room, converted from 18th-century stables, are an education in themselves. Prize-winning samples of barley, grown more than 100 years ago by her husband David's great grandfather, look as good as the day they were harvested; attendance books from a local school show how classrooms emptied when the potato harvest was on, and a collection of artefacts discovered on the farm includes not only a horse's skull, found in a pond, but also Roman toga brooches and a bronze-age axe head.
Into this treasure chamber, on a weekday morning, trooped 30 children aged eight and nine, from the Wantage Church of England school. This group was - and is - a veteran observer of the agricultural scene, for the children come once a term to keep running checks on farm activities, in a programme geared to the national curriculum. Thus, as they sat on the floor in their multicoloured anoraks and gumboots, they had ready answers for most of Mrs Castle's quick-fire questions.
'What crops do we grow here?'
'Oil seed rape.'
'Yes] What colour are its flowers?'
'Right] And what colour are the seeds?'
'Good] What other crops?'
'Yes] And what do I grow wheat for?'
(Wide grins) 'Breakfast]'
'What did you have for breakfast this morning, then?'
'How about you?'
Everyone claimed to have had Weetabix; but it took some time to elicit the fact that the magic ingredient of bread, toast, biscuits and cereal is . . . flour]
So it went on - indoors at first, then out into the whistling north-east wind for a tour of the farmyard. Mrs Castle's delivery and timing, her mixture of jokes, information and cajolery were perfectly judged.
Machinery and equipment fascinated the boys, and soon one of them, Ben, was inside a mobile cattle-crush-cum-scales, getting himself weighed on the back of a tractor. The animals appealed to everyone; none of them more than Becca, a pet cow who distinguished herself last year by giving birth during a lunch-hour visit. This year she will not produce until May, but there was intensive speculation about her new calf, which Mrs Castle described as 'all curled up inside her, right in front of you'.
We inspected stores of straw and barley, and learnt that this is an anxious time of year for farmers, as they wait for the spring grass to grow, and watch their stocks of winter forage dwindle. We saw barley being ground up for the cattle and mixed with molasses, fish-meal and minerals into a delicious-smelling muesli. Grass, we were reminded, is a crop, and not just something on which you play football or run about.
We considered the uses of straw, and the way in which manure is cycled back into food. We learnt how the rotation of crops increases fertility. We stood in the middle of 120 calves and watched them eating what one girl described as 'pickled grass - yearch]' But everyone clearly understood that these were beef animals, and themselves destined to be eaten.
'Shall I tell you an awful secret?' asked our guide, mock- confidentially. 'They don't need handkerchiefs, because their tongues are so long, they can put them right up their noses]'
Shrieks of delight greeted this observation, and for the next few minutes everyone was experimenting, eyes down, tongues up, to see what humans could achieve in that line.
When the subject of foxes came up, and someone said how cruel hunting was, Mrs Castle's answer was forthright. 'Foxes are beautiful animals, I agree. But this morning I went out and found one of my lambs with its throat ripped out. That wasn't very nice, was it?
'I love watching fox cubs, but when they kill my geese and chickens, I can't help feeling angry. So what am I going to do? Shoot them? Gas them? Snare them? Have the hunt catch them? Or let them go on killing my animals? You tell me what's best.'
Our final stop was in the conservation area, where the Castles have created a two-acre pleasance of grass, flowers, shrubs and trees, bounded by a hedge of laurel, which cut the cruel wind dramatically. Suddenly freed from restraint, the children took off down the grass, whooping and shrieking, to examine the pond and other delights.
When brought under control, they responded vigorously to a final bout of questions and answers. 'What do you feel about the conservation area?'
'But it's not growing any food. I could plough it up and plant wheat here . . .'
'No, no, no]'
The vote was unanimously in favour of keeping things as they were, for the benefit both of wildlife and human visitors. Away went the little horde, with fact-sheets marked up in squiggly writing, to consolidate the results of their research in school. Obviously they had enjoyed every minute of their morning; but - far more important - I swear that in a miraculous way it had enhanced their chances of growing up into sensible, balanced citizens.Reuse content